Desegregation and Civil Rights

African Americans in Wisconsin had been struggling for their civil rights for more than a century before the movement began to attract headlines in the 1960s. In 1866, for example, Milwaukee's Ezekiel Gillespie successfully sued for the right to vote, and in the 1930s, William Kelley of the Milwaukee Urban League began to fight for the rights of black teachers to work in the public schools. These early efforts were especially difficult because African Americans made up only a very small percentage of the state's residents before the middle of the 20th century. For information about early civil rights history in Wisconsin, see our black history page at

The large-scale migration of black citizens to Wisconsin only occurred after World War II. Between 1940 and 1960, Wisconsin's African American population increased by nearly 600 percent, from 12,158 in 1940 to 74,546 in 1960. Drawn to jobs in industrial cities during the war, many African Americans stayed in Wisconsin's cities to raise their families. Most of these new residents came from Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee, and increased opportunities for manufacturing jobs and high wages brought more and more southern black migrants to Milwaukee in the 1940s and 1950s. As more Wisconsin residents encountered segregation in housing, employment, and education, they organized in greater numbers to remedy these injustices.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was one of the most dynamic periods of social interaction and change in U.S. history, especially for African Americans. Since the end of the Civil War, African Americans had struggled for the full recognition of rights accorded to them in the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the thirteenth (abolishing slavery), fourteenth (equal protection), and fifteenth (voting rights) amendments to the Constitution. Initially, many people in Wisconsin saw the boycotts, sit-ins, and marches occurring in the South as a southern problem that "couldn't happen here." But the civil rights movement spread northward in the 1960s, where racial segregation was a matter of historical custom based on popular prejudice rather than on laws and statutes.

At the time, Milwaukee was one of the most segregated cities in the nation. Large numbers of African Americans had moved to the city during and after World War II, and by the 1960s they accounted for fifteen percent of the population. Most African Americans in Milwaukee lived in a near north neighborhood which by the 1960s had become a site of increasing volatility due to limited job opportunities, poverty, and segregation. This kind of frustration generated urban violence and inner-city riots across the nation in cities such as Los Angeles and Detroit. On July 30, 1967, riots broke out in Milwaukee after police attempted to stop fights at a downtown entertainment spot. Mayor Henry Maier declared a state of emergency and asked the governor to call out the National Guard. Eight days later, four people were dead and more than 1,500 had been arrested.

Efforts at reforming segregation in Milwaukee focused on segregated housing and schools. In August 1967, after five years of inaction by city officials, the NAACP Youth Council marched to Kosciuszko Park (in a predominantly white neighborhood) to protest the Common Council's refusal to pass an open housing ordinance. Alderperson Vel Phillips had first introduced open housing legislation in March of 1962 and continued to submit it to the council for approval despite being repeatedly voted down. The August 1967 march expressed the frustration of the black community but also drew the wrath of three to five thousand white residents, who shouted obscenities and threw objects at the marchers, particularly focusing on the march's leader, Father James Groppi. Groppi, a white Catholic priest, was an important figure in the civil rights movement, playing an instrumental role in dramatizing the segregated housing situation in Milwaukee through his frequent demonstrations and arrests. Daily demonstrations continued throughout the winter of 1967-68.

In April of 1968, the federal open housing law passed, preventing racial discrimination in eighty percent of the nation. The Milwaukee Common Council finally approved a desegregation law, even stronger than the federal one, on April 30, that exempted only owner-occupied buildings with no more than two units. Adoption of this ordinance ended the more militant phase of the civil rights movement in Milwaukee, though loopholes in federal and city housing policies allowed segregation to continue. Housing patterns in Milwaukee, like other cities, were shaped by real estate agents, city-zoning laws, and lending institutions that refused to loan money to African Americans moving into white neighborhoods. Suburbanization also contributed to segregated housing as whites increasingly moved out of Milwaukee, leaving the inner city to African Americans -- a trend that persists to this day.

Residential segregation inevitably produced school segregation as well. Despite the 1954 decision in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (that declared racial segregation unconstitutional), school segregation remained widespread, often because of segregation in the city's neighborhoods. In a 1960 survey of schools, the NAACP found that schools in Milwaukee's central city were ninety percent black. On August 28, 1963, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Milwaukee organized the first civil rights demonstration in the city. A year later, in May of 1964, they organized a boycott of predominantly black schools that drew the participation of more than half of the African American students.

In 1965, Lloyd Barbee filed a lawsuit that challenged segregation in the Milwaukee public schools, the first of its kind in the nation. The case, Amos, et al. v. Board of School Directors of the City of Milwaukee, filed on behalf of thirty-two African American and nine white students, charged that the Board practiced and allowed discrimination in the public schools. Barbee demanded that Milwaukee end the illegal but real segregation of its schools. He argued that the Milwaukee School Board had drawn district boundaries based on segregated housing patterns and other discriminatory policies, citing as evidence that most of the schools outside the city's segregated central city had less than ten percent African American students.

More than a decade later, on January 19, 1976, Federal Judge John Reynolds ruled that Milwaukee schools were illegally segregated, and ordered the school board to take immediate steps to integrate the schools. The board appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered a new trial. Finally, in March of 1979, the case was settled and the school board agreed to implement a five-year desegregation plan that, though not perfect, began to address some significant schooling issues.

Segregation and discriminatory practices in Madison, though perhaps less publicized, were no less common than in Milwaukee. While many white residents were proud that blacks were not discriminated against in restaurants, public transportation, hotels, schools, or hospitals, African Americans still faced inferior situations in both employment and housing. Unlike Milwaukee, Racine, Beloit, and Kenosha, Madison did not have the industrial manufacturing sector to hire unskilled and semi-skilled workers, and many employers were reluctant to provide on-the-job training. While few businesses openly admitted to discriminatory hiring policies, these practices persisted throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, like Milwaukee, poor housing and residential segregation led African Americans to campaign for open housing laws in Madison.

In the 1970s, the nation's attention shifted from the black civil rights movement to other issues, such as Vietnam and the environment, and to other social groups that began to assert their rights. Inspired by the civil rights movement and demands for equal protection, the Gay Rights movement began campaigning against discrimination in jobs and housing. The 1969 Stonewall riots in New York helped to transform the movement from small, localized activism into a widespread protest for equal rights and acceptance. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol 5 and 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); Schultz, Stanley K. "The Almost Great Society: The 1960s" American History 102 (online at; Ranney, Joseph A. "Looking Further Than the Skin: A History of Wisconsin Civil Rights Law" Wisconsin's Legal History (online at]

Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: Wisconsin voting and civil rights legislation, 1846-1929.Wisconsin voting and civil rights legislation, 1846-1929.
Link to article: The KKK parades through Madison in 1924The KKK parades through Madison in 1924
Link to article: African American housing conditions in Milwaukee in 1955African American housing conditions in Milwaukee in 1955
Link to article: Former slaves who settled in Madison and RacineFormer slaves who settled in Madison and Racine
Link to artifacts: A block-print wall hanging from the Milwaukee Handicraft ProjectA block-print wall hanging from the Milwaukee Handicraft Project
Link to book: A survey of black families in rural Wisconsin, 1959A survey of black families in rural Wisconsin, 1959
Link to book: The effects of Milwaukee school desegregation efforts, 1992The effects of Milwaukee school desegregation efforts, 1992
Link to book: Milwaukee residents discuss the city's racial problems, 1965Milwaukee residents discuss the city's racial problems, 1965
Link to book: Wisconsin's African American population from statehood through 1910Wisconsin's African American population from statehood through 1910
Link to book: A 1950 guide to African American businessesA 1950 guide to African American businesses
Link to images: Photograph of attorney Byron Paine, ca. 1860Photograph of attorney Byron Paine, ca. 1860
Link to images: Milwaukee civil rights leader, Lloyd BarbeeMilwaukee civil rights leader, Lloyd Barbee
Link to images: Fr. James Groppi leading Milwaukee civil rights demonstrations, 1966-1969.Fr. James Groppi leading Milwaukee civil rights demonstrations, 1966-1969.
Link to manuscript: An African American woman describes her migration to Wisconsin in 1917An African American woman describes her migration to Wisconsin in 1917
Link to manuscript: Wisconsin passes the country's first gay rights law, 1982Wisconsin passes the country's first gay rights law, 1982
Link to manuscript: A detailed look at Milwaukee's black community in 1946A detailed look at Milwaukee's black community in 1946
Link to manuscript: William Rasche advocates on behalf of African American workersWilliam Rasche advocates on behalf of African American workers